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    By Eric Peters

    (2005 Ford Freestyle reviewed. 2006 Models may be at your local dealer by the time you read this.)

    Is quiet competence and good value enough to get noticed in a marketplace dazzled by 300 horsepower engines, multiplexed onboard electronics and dash arrays with more blinking lights, buttons, LCD displays and "mouse inputs" than the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica?

    It may be -- if common sense still exists out there.

    And if it does, the new Ford Freestyle should find plenty of buyers.

    Though it looks a lot like a lower-to-the-ground Explorer (or maybe a long wheelbase Escape) the Freestyle is in fact a car-based mid-sized wagon -- not a mid-sized SUV. This may be confusing to some buyers initially -- but the more traditionally upright posture and squared-off lines of the Freestyle serve a functional as well as cosmetic purpose.

    Functionally, the taller, more vertical shape of the Freestyle (relative to other wagons) allows a large cabin with room for seven passengers -- without skimping on storage space behind the fully stowable, "tumble-down" third-row seats. The Chrysler Pacifica is sleeker and more carlike in its appearance -- and clearly not an SUV. But it's also stuffed to the gills when six passengers are aboard. And the Pacifica has much less storage space behind the third row seats -- a meager 13 cubic feet vs. the Ford's generous appx. 20 cubic feet. You can even drag home objects up to 10 feet long in the Freestyle with the third, second row and front passenger seat folded flat -- a feat you'd never manage in the Pacifica without busting out the rear glass or the windshield.

    This is no slam of the Pacifica -- it's just an apples/oranges situation. In the Pacifica, utility has been compromised for the sake of being sporty and sleek. If you don't need room for seven -- plus their stuff -- that's not an issue. But as a potential family truckster -- especially if you have a large family -- the Freestyle is simply the more accommodating vehicle.

    (It's actually nice to have a clear choice -- instead of having to split hairs over minor differences in content and appearance -- or toss a coin and go with the brand that comes up heads.)

    In addition to its SUV-esque styling and shape, the Freestyle also offers SUV-esque poor-weather capability when equipped with the optionally available all-wheel-drive system. It'll tow 2,000-lbs. -- not tremendous, but enough to handle a small trailer and a couple of dirt bikes: road trip stuff.

    The standard (only) engine in the Freestyle is a 3-liter V-6 similar to the one used in the smaller Escape compact SUV. It's rated at 203 hp -- less "on paper" power than the standard or optional V-6 engines in the Pacifica -- but absolutely adequate for the family truckster role. Indeed, the Freestyle's 0-60 time of about 8.6 seconds is actually a few tenths quicker than the 250 hp Pacifica, which is slowed down by its beefy Bertha curb weight. The Freestyle's certainly not slow compared to similar vehicles -- which is the only relevant consideration anyhow. And it can be pretty easy on gas, too -- with an impressive combined city/highway rating (for the front-drive model) of 20 city/27 highway. That is all right -- and way better than you'd find in an SUV with room enough for six, let alone seven.

    A standard Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is partly responsible for the Freestyle's better-than-average economy. A CVT is a type of automatic transmission that keeps the engine in the ideal part of its powerband at any speed or load, without upshifts or downshifts. Engine speed (RPM) simply increases (or decreases), sort of like a rheostat as you drive faster -- or slow down. One of the other nice things about the CVT is smoothness; even under full-throttle Mad Max passing efforts, there are no herky-jerky coffee-sloshing gear changes. The car just builds up speed as long as you keep your foot down.

    This is weird at first -- if you're used to conventional run-through-the gears upshifting -- especially during hard acceleration, where the engine will spool up quickly to the higher ranges of the RPM scale and stay there until you back off. But you quickly get used to that -- and certainly won't miss spilling your java all over the seats when driving hard. The other thing to know about the CVT is it can sound "thrashier" -- especially, again, when the vehicle is driven hard. But like the slight off-idle clatter of a diesel engine, it's easy to either tune out or get completely used to the slightly different feels/sounds of a CVT tranny relative to a conventional automatic.

    But make sure you take a thorough test drive (of this or any CVT-equipped vehicle) first to be absolutely sure about this.

    The Freestyle's extra-cost AWD system hurts fuel efficiency somewhat -- mileage drops to 19 city/24 highway -- but that's still plenty acceptable for a small bus. And although choosing AWD does bump the price up from the base front-wheel-drive '06 SE's MSRP of $25,105 to $26,955 -- that's still a very appealing deal for a fully equipped (AC, power driver's seat, 17-inch wheels, privacy glass, power windows and door locks, etc.) seven passenger family car with AWD.

    In contrast, the AWD-equipped Pacifica costs about $800 more -- $27,625 vs. $26,840 -- and it's still smaller on the inside, with less room for people and stuff.

    Or, look at it another way: You could buy almost two Freestyles for the price of just one Mercedes E-Class (or BMW) wagon.

    Not that the Freestyle is in the same league as the E-Class or Beemer wagons (keep your seats, please). But then again, do you really need all the whoop-de-doo electronics and doo-dads that you get for the extra $25K?

    Want, maybe -- but need?

    And the E-wagon still won't seat seven.

    (It also doesn't meet 2008 federal standards for occupant protection against frontal impacts, which the also 5-star rated, side curtain-equipped Freestyle does.)

    The Volvo XC70 wagon is very nice, but it starts around $35K -- some five grand more than you'd pay at full MSRP for a top-of-the-line Freestyle Limited with AWD, heated leather seats, wood trim, adjustable pedals, climate control, 18-inch wheels with high-quality Pirelli P6 tires and a premium Audiophile/MP3-capable audio system.

    Of course, if your must-have list includes Galactica-esque stuff such as voice-activated navigation systems, laser-guided cruise control, an array of blinking lights and buttons -- or a 150 mph-capable drivetrain -- the Freestyle won't meet your expectations.

    But it will meet the expectations of common sense.

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    Planning to buy a Ford Freestyle? Then read a comprehensive review of the 2005 Ford Freestyle and learn more about this car-based mid-sized wagon.
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